David Morley is UNICEF Canada's president and CEO.
The Great Recession that followed the financial crisis of 2008 was the worst economic downturn to hit the world's richest nations in 80 years. As Canadians, we were anxious about losing jobs, incomes, our homes and even our ability to put food on the table. Many of our neighbours to the south were foreclosed out of their homes and the world watched as European governments sought urgent bailouts. Overall, unemployment jumped, incomes fell and children bore the brunt as economies plummeted. In its new report, "Children of the Recession," UNICEF looks at the world's 41 most affluent countries and finds that in the wake of the crisis, millions more children live in poverty, millions more young people are out of work and family stress has steeply increased.
Canada's children fared better than most. Our child poverty rate actually decreased by two percentage points and 180,000 children rose out of poverty. Even more remarkably, the poverty rate for Canada's single parent families decreased by seven points. Every level of government implemented policies to help safeguard children from the worst of the downturn. Federal child-focused benefits and provincial poverty reduction targets, income supplements and specific services for children all worked – child poverty decreased on average.
But, despite this strong showing during the recession, Canada's relative ranking in child poverty still only puts us 20th out of the world's 41 wealthiest countries. This isn't good enough for a country like ours – and one of the key reasons is ongoing inequity.
If the federal and provincial policies that protected many of our children didn't help a family fend off poverty, their children fell farther behind their friends and classmates during the recession. So, while many poor families rose out of poverty, the poorest slipped further behind, widening the poverty gap. And, coming out of the recession, Canada's child poverty rate is still higher than the rates in many of our peer countries. Sadly, our child poverty rate is higher than the rate for other Canadians. Children shouldn't be our poorest citizens.
While we can't minimize the fact that Canada's children came through the Great Recession fairly well compared with most other countries, as Canadians we don't aspire to "fairly well" for our children. As a champion for children on so many fronts, Canada can do better for our most vulnerable and poor children so they aren't the victims of future economic woes.
If many of Canada's children weathered the Great Recession better than most, what can we do to build upon those gains and make sure that our most vulnerable and poor children get the priority attention they need to not only rise out of poverty, but also to thrive and to be protected from the ravages of future economic instability?
First of all, we can prepare ourselves for the next downturn with a child-first strategy. This would include an explicit policy that children are given priority – the first to benefit from stimulus packages and the last to suffer from budget cuts. It would include a government reserve fund to invest in measures to protect family income and children's services and a leave-no-child-out approach to ensure enough targeted attention is given to our most disadvantaged children.
We must focus on improving the living conditions of our children as deficits are wrestled down and we return to balanced budgets. There is room to advance the well-being of our children – international comparison reveals this in no uncertain terms. It's time for a coordinated child well-being strategy at all levels of government in Canada. If we can use a "child-impact lens" to look at fiscal and policy decisions from the outset, we can ensure the well-being of our children isn't forgotten as policies are made. And by establishing a National Children's Commissioner to monitor and report on the state of Canada's children, our girls and boys would have someone advocating for them in national discussions and debates. They deserve nothing less from us.
As a society, we weathered the storm of the Great Recession with few scrapes and bruises, but by and large our kids were in a holding pattern. Now let's build on the positive things we did in tough times, and make things better for all of Canada's children, particularly our most vulnerable.
Our choices at this critical juncture will show up in the lives of our children and the productivity of Canada as a nation. If generations have defining moments, this is one of them.